Challenges and Opportunities for Evangelism Today

Priscilla Pope-Levison

“What if evangelism is one of the things that our world needs most?” Brian McLaren’s penetrating question offers an apt avenue to launch this essay. His question takes us on a different tack from most essays and books on evangelism, particularly those written by mainline Protestant types like me, who hand-wring over the dismal disregard today for evangelism.

The word itself appears frequently in this discouraging abbreviation: the e-word. While McLaren admits that evangelism, the e-word, evokes the image of selling God like vinyl siding, he still recognizes the value, even the necessity, of this sharing the good news practice because it pursues critical, life-changing conversations offering “a taste of grace, a ‘rumor of glory,’ as songwriter Bruce Cockburn says” (More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix [Zondervan, 2002], 13–14). McLaren believes that good evangelism and good evangelists can make a world of difference, literally! I concur. However, it isn’t easy to be enthusiastic about evangelism today, given the wide range of challenges mitigating against it. At the same time, golden opportunities exist as well. So let’s look at several, two-sided realities in the twenty-first century that serve up both challenge and opportunity simultaneously. Then it’s up to each one of us and the churches we’re engaged in to turn each challenge into an opportunity.

Negative Perception of Evangelism

Evangelism has a huge PR problem to overcome right off the bat. The Elmer Gantry evangelistic hucksters who preached one thing and lived another have embedded in many people the equation that evangelism equals hypocrisy. Even if the Elmer Gantry title from Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 classic doesn’t ring a bell, everyone recognizes the caricature of the sweaty-browed, striped-tie, used-car salesman evangelist, replete with a neon-bright, white-toothed smile, whose sleazy, heavy-handed appeal turns our stomach. The female evangelist in Elmer Gantry was based on Aimee Semple McPherson, whose nationally covered kidnapping saga—was it fact or a malevolent fictitious ruse?—occurred the year before Lewis published the novel. This caricature of the evangelist-minus-integrity reemerged in the 1980s with the downfall of prominent televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Their financial and sexual shenanigans justifiably prompted many people, Christians among them, to recoil at the mere mention of the e-word.

More recently, televangelists are buying airplanes – plural! Kenneth Copeland owns at least three private aircraft. The Texas-based preacher claimed he would be surrounded by demonic forces if he were forced to travel on commercial planes. Another evangelist, Jesse Duplantis, quipped that if Jesus descended from heaven and physically set foot on earth today, he wouldn’t ride on a donkey; instead, “he’d be on an airplane preaching the gospel all over the world.” Duplantis asked his followers to pay for a $54 million plane, even though he already owned three. Unfortunately, these evangelists, whose antics flood the news cycle, fuel an even greater sense in our time of evangelism as extreme. According to a recent Barna Group study, “a startling six in 10 Americans believe that any ‘attempt to convert others’ to one’s own faith is ‘extreme.’ More than eight out of 10 ‘nones’ say so! To be clear: A majority of U.S. adults, and the vast majority of non-religious adults (83%), believe that evangelism is religiously extreme” (Barna Group, Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age: How Christians’ Approach to Sharing Their Faith Has Changed in 25 Years [Barna Group, 2018], 23).

On the flip side–and here’s the opportunity–the number one reason cited by people who gravitated to Christianity is their relationship with a believer. In other words, they became a Christian because of a personal connection. Nearly three-quarters of respondents to a recent survey identify a spouse or partner, a congregation, a minister, a parent or other family member, a friend or someone they have a relationship with as the influencer in their decision. If children are added to the mix, then the number increases to 86% (Bryan P. Stone, Finding Faith Today [Wipf & Stock, 2018], 48–49). Even in a 100-page document explaining how to utilize social media in evangelism, the authors reiterate the centrality of relationships. “Human relationships are precious, whether face-to-face or virtual ones that take place on social media platforms. They require time, prayer, and personal investment. While we applaud your interest in pursuing social media as a ministry platform, we want to impress upon you that the creation and building of relationships … is both a magnificent opportunity as well as a heavy responsibility that should not be taken lightly” (Mobile Ministry Forum, Social Media for Missions 23).

Developing relationships is even more significant today in evangelism because most Christians come to faith gradually rather than instantaneously; it’s a journey, not a jog. Whereas a century ago, revivals in America, full of urgency to decide now—tonight!—held prominence as evangelism’s top billing, their impact has since waned dramatically. “The stereotype of a person becoming a Christian in a moment of awakening or conversion is for the most part false. … The preoccupation with getting quick results, moreover, may even be unhealthy considering the kinds of changes in life patterns, practices, commitments, beliefs and purpose that often end up accompanying conversion” (Stone, Finding Faith Today, 17).

What these statistics and comments from recent studies add up to is that evangelism requires time and attention for the development and preservation of relationships. Evangelism is for the long haul. “[T]hose who want to aid others in coming to faith need to take seriously how they might come alongside those who are on a journey of faith, nourishing and nurturing them by understanding faith as a process of cultivating habits, practices, convictions, and dispositions of character over time” (Stone, Finding Faith Today, 17–18). All this is to say that negative stereotypes of evangelists dissipate in the midst of personal or small group evangelism, where conversation flows in a context of hospitality, grace, and love.

Decline in Spiritual Conversations

For decades, spiritual conversations have been on the decline, according to the Barna Group, which tracked this trend over a twenty-five-year period. An overwhelming majority of American Christians find spiritual conversations downright embarrassing (Barna Group, Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age, 23). A UMC pastor in Arkansas corroborated these statistics when he told me that he did not learn to talk about his faith at church: “Growing up in the UMC, I was not taught that I had a story to tell. I was taught the Methodist story really well, but I was not encouraged to consider my own faith story and how it might impact someone else.” The same impulse to clamp down on speaking about God shows up in the subtitle, Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing, of Jonathan Merritt’s recent book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch. Merritt describes the spiritual language barrier he encountered when he moved to New York City. “I never anticipated, upon arriving, that I’d run into a crippling language barrier. Sure, I could order a late-night kabob from a halal street cart or relay an address to a taxicab driver. I spoke English as well as I always had. My problem was that I could no longer ‘speak God’” (Jonathan Merritt, Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—And How We Can Revive Them [Convergent Books, 2018], 3). Merritt insists he is not alone. Nor is this a phenomenon limited to New York City. Even heartland Christians experience the same language barrier and proclivity to deflect spiritual conversations. Statistically, according to Merritt, only 13% of American Christians speak about God on a weekly basis.

During the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, religious leaders observed their people hungering in unprecedented ways to hear stories of where God is at work in the world despite unemployment, grief, despair, anxiety, loss, uncertainty, and isolation. To address this hunger, a Dallas church began to include testimonies during the Sunday online worship service. One young nurse working in a tactical COVID-19 unit at Parkland Hospital testified to the intersection between her faith and her work. “At work, I am more than just a nurse. I am the hands and feet of God. … I am trying to be family to them. Faith is giving me strength to do that.” The congregational response to her testimony was overwhelming. When I asked the senior pastor about the decision to incorporate testimonies, he responded, “We decided that we would do everything we could to involve the congregation creatively during this COVID period. Testimonies and other kinds of video events were one way to do that.” This is just one example of the shift to integrating testimony, the practice of Christians telling stories about how and where they experience God’s activity in their life. These stories are “life-giving,” wrote Brian McLaren in an email to the author. “When people see how others are discerning the presence of God in their lives, they are inspired to do the same.”

Lest testimony be understood as all talk but no action, consider the Greek word for testimony, martyria. Testimony as martyria means a word spoken for which one is ready to be martyred. Consider Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who testified to the risen Christ in the midst of a murderous mob. “Stephen is not called a martyr because he dies, he dies because he is a witness of Christ” (quoted in Amanda Drury, Saying Is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Development [InterVarsity Press, 2015], 118). Martyrs, like Stephen, who held more tightly to their testimony than their own life, have profoundly shaped the Christian church through the ages. A contemporary example—and there are many—is Dorothy Day (1897–1980), founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. While not persecuted for her faith to the point of martyrdom, nonetheless she faced relentless criticism for bringing her testimony into the political and economic arenas. “If I have achieved anything in my life,” declared Day, “it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God” (Jim Forest, “Dorothy Day,” in The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History ed. Michael Glazier and Thomas J. Shelley [Liturgical Press, 1991], 414). An evangelism professor, Jack Jackson, wrote in a Catalyst article outlining the central importance of testimony, “There has never been a better time to make Christian testimony, once again, a central act of the Methodist community.”

Evangelism in a COVID World

Along with the unimaginable destruction of life, health, employment, housing, travel, and so much else wracked up during the global pandemic, the North American church has also experienced a devastating impact. Participation in worship services and other church activities currently falls 30–50% below the pre-pandemic average, according to a recent Barna Group study. The toll on pastors and worship leaders has been exceedingly heavy. During an evangelism webinar I taught last month for the Presbyterian Church in Canada, one pastor declared that she never wanted to hear the word pivot again! Not surprisingly, nearly 40% of pastors have seriously considered quitting full-time ministry, and half of those experiencing a heightened sense of burnout serve churches in mainline denominations. “The year 2020—and now 2021—are arguably the two hardest years to ever be a pastor in the United States … I’ve never seen more people ready to check out,” stated William Vanderbloemen, head of a Houston-based church consultancy group (Robert Downen, “Nearly 40 percent of pastors ‘seriously’ considered exiting ministry,” Houston Chronicle (16 November 2021), web edition).

At the same time, according to a recent Harris poll, a majority of American adults—two-thirds—state that the pandemic has had a positive influence on their faith. These statistics are borne out anecdotally by the emergence of testimony during the outbreak of COVID-19, as described above. “Members of all groups—by gender, age, income, education, household makeup, race, and region—also report feeling a personal spiritual awakening.” An unexpected group leading the percentage is men between the age of 35 and 44, who are “the most likely to feel more spiritual and religious today than before the pandemic.” For Americans not affiliated with a religion, 13% state that they have become more spiritual on account of the pandemic (Will Johnson, “Pandemic side effect: Many are returning to their faith,” Houston Chronicle (25 November 2020): 15).

To return to McLaren’s question, “What if evangelism is one of the things that our world needs most?” Now is always the time to engage in evangelism, and this is true now more than ever. Even with masking and social distancing requirements in place, each of the eight models presented in my book, Models of Evangelism (Baker Academic, 2020), can be practiced robustly and effectively. However, for brevity’s sake, I will mention here only four of the models that I consider particularly apt for evangelism in a COVID world:

Personal evangelism: begin to pray for one person you cross paths with, either in-person or online, and find opportunities to initiate gospel-related conversations

Small group evangelism: launch a short-term group for the purpose of evangelizing 6–8 folks whose interest in religion has been piqued during the pandemic

Church Growth evangelism: every church can begin now a new port of entry for like-minded people to gather around a topic or activity related to the Christian faith

Media evangelism: this model is 100% geared to evangelism during the pandemic. Religious conversations via social or other media can feel less threatening for a religious seeker. When possible and with safety measures in place, an online conversation can continue offline and incorporate strategies from the personal evangelism model.

Now is always the time to engage in evangelism, and this is true now more than ever.

Posted Apr 20, 2022